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Sunderland show the Reds the benefits of a target-man
FIRST TO THE BALL: Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher bids to halt Liverpool’s Joe Allen at the Stadium of Light on Saturday
Final Score: Sunderland 1 Liverpool 1
FORMATIONS were pretty similar but the style of play something different. Brendan Rodgers may not think there is room for a target-man in Liverpool's new way of thinking, but Sunderland are already seeing the benefits of having an effective one in their ranks.
While Rodgers and Liverpool did their best to move on Andy Carroll before bringing in a replacement last month, Martin O'Neill was demanding the opposite from the boardroom at the Stadium of Light.
O'Neill has always loved an attacking powerhouse to lead the line during his spells with Aston Villa, Celtic and Leicester City and now he has Steven Fletcher doing just that on Wearside .
There was a sense of irony about the way Fletcher, the type of striker Rodgers sees no place for in the Liverpool ranks, was the man that looked as if he had piled further early season frustration on Anfield.
While Liverpool are struggling to find a cutting edge in the final third to complement their free-flowing passing style, the addition of Fletcher to Sunderland's options has added a new dimension to their play.
Sunderland might not have had the possession nor the opportunities to win this game at a canter, but when Fletcher's one chance of the game did come along he finished it in style.
After moving ahead of marker Martin Skrtel in the penalty area, the Scottish striker had created the space for himself to potently side-foot Craig Gardner's bursting run and cross beyond Spanish goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
Fletcher's 29th-minute opener was his third in two Premier League appearances since his move from Wolves last month. His seemingly high £12m price-tag is already starting to look a bit of a bargain.
And with O'Neill constantly claiming Fletcher is not even fully fit, it is little wonder the players being asked to provide the supply line to him are enjoying having a target-man in their ranks.
Winger-cum-midfielder Seb Larsson said: “It’s very important to have Steven up there for us and he has been excellent. It probably wasn’t the hardest goal he’s scored, but it wasn’t about the finish, it was about his movement to get into the position to finish it off.
"It’s great for us and it’s been a brilliant start for him. It makes a difference having a striker you know is capable of scoring those sorts of goals and it gives a lot of confidence to the team. We just need to keep working on 60, 65 minute onwards performance and I'm sure he will get more, we will get more and we will start to win.”
At this stage it is not a concern, but the winning habit does have to return to the Sunderland squad.
Spread over two seasons it is now 11 matches since Sunderland won in the Premier League, but O'Neill can rightly point to the fact they are unbeaten so far in the new campaign after draws with Arsenal, Swansea and Liverpool.
Despite having just 34 per cent of the possession against Liverpool and very few chances, Saturday was perhaps the perfect opportunity to claim those first three points of the season but they failed to build on Fletcher's opener.
Sunderland, who had to shuffle the pack by bringing on Titus Bramble for the injured Carlos Cuellar at half-time, defended strongly to frustrate a new-look Liverpool team still possessing players capable of finding the net like Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez.
More worryingly, though, Sunderland struggled to retain possession and create further chances for Fletcher at the opposite end. Undoubtedly Stephane Sessegnon looks comfortably short of match sharpness and James McClean is yet to hit last season's heights.
And without the injured £12m winger Adam Johnson , missing with a thigh injury after a set-back in training on Friday, to spark things to life it was no surprise to see full-back Gardner providing the pass for the goal.
But when the exciting Raheem Sterling dazzled his way past debutant Danny Rose to tee up Suarez to net the equaliser at the second attempt after Bramble failed to deal with a deflected shot with 19 minutes left, Sunderland never looked like regaining the lead.
In fact had goalkeeper Simon Mignolet not got down low to deny Jonjo Shelvey's low drive in the closing stages then Liverpool would have won.
But Larsson is confident Sunderland are heading in the right direction. The Sweden international said: “We can definitely improve on last season's finish (13th). We’re a stronger team and a stronger squad.
“Confidence is key. The two away games have been tough and Liverpool, whatever people say, you are never going to walk all over them. We haven’t got many points on the board, but we’re unbeaten and it’s been a decent start. I think we’re going to have a good crack this season.
“I suppose it’s a decent point, but when you’re winning after 70 odd minutes you want to get the three points. Our performance in the second half wasn’t good enough to get the three points, I don’t think we can complain Liverpool got their goal in the end.”
It was also a point from a match when emotions were high as Liverpool played for the first time since their fans won the fight for justice for the 96 who lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster 23 years ago.
But Larsson said: “I’m sure it’s been a difficult week for them because it’s a closer issue for them. Of course, you can’t ignore what’s gone and Liverpool walked out with their  tops on before the game, you can’t not be aware of it, but when the whistle goes that’s all we had to focus on.”
And now Larsson and his Sunderland team-mates can move on themselves, with this Saturday's trip to West Ham United the next opportunity to find that elusive first Premier League win since March.
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